Thought Experiments in Games

Mankind has always been interested in philosophical dilemmas which have arisen throughout history. It is only natural that these questions would find themselves well placed in the modern medium of games. Since they provide a more casual, non-academic approach to these problems, a wider variety of people are willing to engage them. Moral choices are intrinsically tied to the degree of freedom a player has but also to their ability to accurately predict the outcome of their actions. Many games such as The Witcher series, Dragon Age series, Mass Effect series, and most RPGs in general provide an environment that can facilitate different enough effects from decisions. However, they may not always represent the actual choice the player would make in a similar real-life situation due to a variety of factors such as the limitations of the game itself, the curiosity of what lies behind a specific path, and the realization that this has no consequences in the real world, i.e. it is fake.

These situations are magnified in games in a more fantastical than realistic setting. It is more difficult to relate to non-existing creatures and characters than an equally well-told story about real life situations. Choosing to slaughter an entire platoon of “bad guys “may prove easier than to sacrifice one friend to save many.

 

dragon-age-inquisition-multiplayer-platinum-dlc_pdp_3840x2160_en_WW
(BioWare Edmonton 2014)

 

The game I have decided to make is based around relatively real questions and uses the fact that Twine is text-based to not distract with flashy graphics from what the player really wants to choose. It ultimately falls under the same scrutiny that choices can simply be made from curiosity but the goal is to invoke thought even if the action is insincere. The game begins with the protagonist captured by unknown individuals who begin asking questions for “evaluation”. It quickly becomes clear that their moral compass may not be the same as yours. Games like Dishonoured provide a moral choice in certain situations but may also offer a specific reward for completing the task a certain way. (Arkane Studios 2012) In my project Into the Void, the only goal is survival and to reflect on why certain choices are made the way they are.

The way the game operates is inspired by elements from Saw and The Witcher 3 along with Gettier’s argument that the reason behind the choice also matters. (Gettier 1963) (Wan 2004) (CD Projekt Red 2014) While the former provides a setting, the latter inspired the idea that good intentions do not always end well and sometimes a more pragmatic approach may be necessary.

saw
(Wan 2004)

 

In CD Projekt Red’s game it is not always apparent how events interconnect and where they eventually lead which is represented by both actions and conversations the player has with other characters. This heavily influences the overall narrative in surprising and varying ways with the outcome sometimes being not what the player wants. Unintentional consequences can be very healthy for a video game because it makes one think why this version of events unfolded despite believing to have done everything for the opposite.

Witcher3choices-1024x576
CD Projekt Red 2015

 

My game has several endings which may not be wildly different but that is also part of the overall experience. In Braveheart the protagonists faces overwhelming odds and even though he does everything possible and beyond in the end he is still captured and murdered. (Gibson 1995) The film concludes on a positive note with the idea of inspiring hope and still honors the realistic outcome of events. This melding of spiritual with physical also ties in with the debate whether physical loss is preferred to a moral one (dying to inspire others) and if so is the soul separate from the body. (Robinson 2017) This clash of monism and dualism is difficult to solve because we do not have the required scientific knowledge of some of the fundamental building blocks of the mind like consciousness, how exactly is information stored, how are memories recalled, how do emotions relate among others, all required for the full understanding of one’s true self.

TV series such as Westworld propose the question of what is consciousness and how is it achieved. (Nolan 2016) The dilemma of artificial intelligence is also present in video games like Mass Effect, Halo, System Shock which all present the issue of what morality is and how it defers for individuals.

Into the Void provides a playground to ponder some questions which may have never come to mind while offering an appropriate atmosphere.

 

 

Bibliography

 

Arkane Studios (2012) Dishonored – Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One. Bethesda Softworks

BioWare (2012) Mass Effect 3 – Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii U. Electronic Arts

BioWare Edmonton (2014) Dragon Age: Inquisition – Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox On. Electronic Arts

Braveheart, 1995 [film]. Directed by Mel Gibson USA: Paramount Pictures

CD Projekt Red (2015) The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt – Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4, Xbox One. CD Projekt

Gettier, E. (1963) ‘Is Justified True Belief Knowledge’, Analysis, 23(6), pp. 121-122, 123.

Robinson, Howard, “Dualism”, (2017), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

Available at: https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2017/entries/dualism

Saw, 2004 [film]. Directed by James Wan USA: Evolution Entertainment Twisted Pictures

Westworld, 2016- [tv series]. Directed by Jonathan Nolan USA: HBO Entertainment

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Games About Everyday Life

Violence seems to be a prevalent theme, tool, and even goal in many video games. Most require the player to defeat the opposing forces by “killing” them in some way.(Warren 2015) It is an interesting topic on its own but there are games which do not require any forceful act from the agent. These usually mimic real lives and relate to everyday situations and occurrences. Because games are a source of entertainment it can be difficult to translate the mundane routines of reality into an engaging medium. The genres in which such titles span differ greatly including entries like The Sims, Simcity, Tropico, GameDev Tycoon, Democracy, all completely diverse from one another.

Not all games based on real life are realistic. Minecraft, for example, is heavily stylized and gives the player freedom in what they can construct but the elements and tools are based around everyday life: building a house, acquiring resources to expand your base, and protecting what he or she has from external factors. The Sims, in contrast, has attempted to imitate real-life struggles and events as closely as possible throughout the different versions of the game. Mechanics include the need for sustenance such as food and water, tending to needs and emotional states, maintaining a healthy balance between work and personal life, starting and raising a family, and many others are taken directly from real experiences. This can be problematic after a certain point since the amount of work required to tend to your avatar’s whims can quickly start to outweigh what you may want to do instead. Reversely, there are mechanics which simply cannot work well enough or resemble real-life close enough such as sleep, job insecurity, and general permanent consequences. Although these can prove to be temporary challenges, overall their solutions can be quick and without much hassle such as losing your job and immediately being able to find a new one.

Serious games are another trend which has become more popular over the recent years as gaming has been more widely accepted as a mainstream media. These represent titles which showcase difficult moral choices, having to solve problems on a philosophical or spiritual level, problematic topics such as racism, sexism, social inequality, and any others which invoke thoughts and feelings about real life issues. Once again, they may not necessarily be in a realistic setting such as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, which provides a distinct high fantasy setting but challenges the player with very real dilemmas like choosing among friends, deciding who to sacrifice if necessary, or generally being provided with easy but more consequential options. (Obsidian Entertainment 2004)

kotor
(Obsidian Entertainment 2004)

 

But everyday game mechanics can be much more nuanced than a blatant moral choice especially when they begin to influence gameplay without overtaking it. Fallout: New Vegas implements a system which includes the need to eat, drink and rest which can be done in a plethora of natural ways. (Stapleton 2010) According to Don Norman, this is necessary to achieve the required level of immersion and for the system to be assessed as successful and intuitive. (Norman 2014) This can be done by following convention, using descriptions, and follow real life as closely as the environment allows. Because objects in the game resemble those found outside the digital world such as cups, plates, mattresses, and others, it is easy to conclude what must be done (i.e. drink the water, eat the bread).

Many games while succeeding to represent some part of life in a believable way, fail to do so in other places some of which are not to be underestimated. For example, racism is often an unintentional consequence of cultural bias.(Fordyce, Neale, Apperlay 2006) A game like Europa Universalis IV presents a pseudo-realistic view of history with the player acting as an agent with complete control over an entire country with mechanics like attrition, starvation, military discipline, diplomatic and administrative power, religious influence, technological advances, relations with neighbours and foreign powers and many others entirely founded in history. However, during a big portion of the time during which the game spans the Chinese empire was more advanced and prosperous. (Maddison 2007)

GDP
(Maddison 2007)

 

The complete opposite is represented in-game with European countries having an advantage in almost every single system. Most recently South Park: The Fractured But Whole made a commentary about this issue by introducing a difficulty setting based on the skin colour of the character. Even though only cosmetic, it serves to illustrate the existing problem within the medium of games.

 

south_park_difficulty_slider
(Ubisoft San Francisco 2017)

 

Games continue to permeate our lives on an increasing basis. Because of this, it is imperative to remember that even the ones intended to provide the most realistic simulation of life are still fiction.

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

Fordyce, Robbie; Neale, Timothy; Apperlay, Tom. (2006) FCJ-199 Modelling Systemic Racism: Mobilising the Dynamics of Race and Games in Everyday Racism. The Fibreculture Journal [Accessed 15.11.2017]

Griebel, T. (2006) Self-Portrayal in a Simulated Life: Projecting Personality and Values in The Sims 2. Available at: http://gamestudies.org/0601/articles/griebel [Accessed: 15.11.2017].

Maddison, Angus (2007). Contours of the World Economy 1-2030. P.379, table A.4. Oxford

Norman, D. (2014) Affordances and Design. Available at: http://www.jnd.org/dn.mss/affordances_and.html [Accessed: 11.11.2017].

Obsidian Entertainment (2004) Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2 – Microsoft Windows, Xbox, OS X, Linux. LucasArts.

Paradox Development Studio (2013) Europa Universalis IV – Microsoft Windows. Paradox Interactive.

Stapleton, D. (2010) Fallout: New Vegas Hardcore Mode Survival Guide. Available at: http://www.pcgamer.com/fallout-new-vegas-hardcore-mode-survival-guide/ (Accessed: 15.11.2017).

Ubisoft San Francisco (2017) South Park: The Fractured But Whole – Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4, Xbox One. Ubisoft.

Why is Killing a Fundamental Game Mechanic?(2015) Directed by Warren, J. [YouTube]. PBS Digital Studios.

Power in Games

The word “power” has acquired a variety of meaning throughout time depending deeply on the context it can be used. Describing anything from electrical currents to the influence and control political entities can exert it is also a common term used to describe the nature and role of a player within games. Because video games serve as a medium to escape reality in some way it is vital for a game designer to be able to define what power means in their game.

Agency is becoming increasingly important within the industry as more and more developers focus on the ability of the player to act according to their free will. (Green, M.A., 2017) It is important to note, however, that players may have less control over their experience than they realize even in cases where a plethora of seemingly different choices and paths are introduced into the narrative. As Daniel Josephs argues the involvement of platforms is now essential to the distribution of video games which also dictates that the tools with which the medium works are completely unavailable to the end user. (Code of Conduct, 2017) Valve is a prime example with some estimates putting the company in control of over eighty percent of the market. In recent months Steam (Valve’s digital distribution platform) introduced an update which requires games to be updated to their latest version whenever one wants to play. (Valve, 2017) This introduces a plethora of issues including undesired changes by the player who may wish to keep an older version due to technical problems or personal preference of the game mechanics, unpredictable behavior in the modding community, and potential hardware incompatibility with certain devices. This is a prime case in which the player’s choice is limited to an extent of what game they want to experience.

Technical aspect aside, even within the context of the game freedom can be illusionary. Although it may appear that there are a variety of choices one can make which can lead to several different outcomes or ways of progressing it is often an intentional mirage created by the developers to instill excitement. A popular example is the Mass Effect trilogy which at the time was praised for the number of ways the player can interact with other characters and the environment. BioWare, the publisher, even created tools to allow players to keep their progression between the different installments. (theanomaloushost, 2017) However, as the franchise evolved, and especially towards the end it quickly became clear that most choices and events have been largely inconsequential to the narrative. NPCs which had been killed off previously are quickly replaced with almost identical, sometimes stereotypical variations of their overall character. This directly takes away any power the player may have thought he or she has over the narrative or even smaller nuances within the fabula

405433-mass-effect-xbox-360-screenshot-dialog-choices-use-a-radial
(Rives, 2015)

. A more recent entrance into the business in the form of The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt” has attempted to offer players a much larger degree of liberty and therefore power. The game is interconnected in a way that allows for multiple paths to be taken not only at the end but throughout the whole campaign which directly influences everything from abilities to the style and number of allies available as well as the approach to most problems.

the-witcher-2-tech-dete7m4
(Ran, 2017)

 

Not all games are intended to have a narrative choice or even a gameplay one. It is important to understand what power would mean in such a case. Some of the most popular games today do not even have any plot to speak of such as League of Legends, Dota 2, Hearthstone, Playerunknown’s battlegrounds, and others most notably competitive e-sports titles. Power fantasy is quite clear here as the setting provides means with which a player rapidly becomes more powerful in a short amount of time.

 

While in the past traditionally MMO’s have supplied the demand for such a need, in more recent years the so-called MOBA’s (Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas) have taken over as the primary provider of power satisfaction. This is due to a variety of reasons but primarily due to the easy accessibility of MOBA’s, the variety of gameplay they provide, and the significantly lesser time investment required than games such as World of Warcraft. (Crider, M 2017)(Statista, 2017) Competitive games are unique in the way that although there are many ways to play them, strategies usually revolve around the so-called “meta” which dictates what is best and what should be done in almost every situation. (Bernhardt, 2017) This restriction is self-imposed by the community and often shifts due to new discoveries or changes to the game. This can be considered a form of panopticism since there is no one person dictating the ways to play but rather the collective discerns what is best and what should be done and most individuals will choose to follow these decisions, such as acquiring the same skills, items, or any other means to win even in situations where variation is not only possible but even viable.

Image 2_grid view
(GTex, 2012)

 

 

Bibliography

Bernhardt, A.T. (2017) ‘Power Creep – Why MMOs, MOBAs, and TCGs Die Early’, Manaburnt, 11.06.2017. Available at: https://manaburnt.wordpress.com/2017/06/11/power-creep-why-mmos-mobas-and-tcgs-die-early/ (Accessed: 21.11.2017).

Crider, M. (2017) Why are MOBA Games Like League of Legends So Popular? Available at: https://www.howtogeek.com/331389/why-are-moba-games-like-league-of-legends-so-popular/ (Accessed: 21.11.2017).

Green, M.A. (2017) , in Kapel Wilhelm, M. (ed.) Storytelling in Video Games, The Art of the Digital Narrative. First Edition edn., pp. 12.

GTez. (2012) ‘Pro Tips for the New Item Shop’, League of Legends, 13.12.2013. Available at: http://forums.na.leagueoflegends.com/board/showthread.php?t=2898107&page=1#post32389915 (Accessed: 20.11.2017).

Joseph, D. (2017) ‘Code of Conduct’, .

McMahon, A. (2016) The Illusion of Choice in Gaming. Available at: http://thenerdstash.com/illusion-of-choice/ [Accessed: 23.11.2017].

Ran, R. (2010) ‘Early Review’, Gamespot, 2011. Available at: https://www.gamespot.com/forums/system-wars-314159282/the-witcher-2-early-review-in-28597632/ (Accessed: 21.11.2017).

Rives, J. (2015) ‘Do Your Choices Matter? A Look at Mass Effect by BioWare.’, Games and Culture, 20.03.2015. Available at: http://gamecult.umwblogs.org/2015/03/20/do-your-choices-matter-a-look-at-mass-effect-by-bioware/ [Accessed: 21.11.2017].

Statista (2013) Distribution of World of Warcraft Player in 2013 by Time Spent Playing. Germany: Statista. Available at: https://www.statista.com/statistics/327295/time-spent-playing-world-of-warcraft/ [Accessed: 21.11.2017].

theanomaloushost (2017) Mass Effect 1 PC Review. Available at: https://theanomaloushost.org/2017/02/24/mass-effect-1-pc-review/ [Accessed: 20.11.2017].

Valve (2017) Steam Client Updates. Available at: http://store.steampowered.com/news/?feed=steam_client [Accessed: 20.11.2017].